April 29, 2021 -- The FDA said that within a year it will ban menthol in cigarettes and ban all flavors including menthol in cigars.
Menthol makes it easier to start smoking, and also enhances the effects of nicotine, making it more addictive and harder to quit, the FDA said in announcing its actions on Thursday.
Nineteen organizations — including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Cancer Society, American Medical Association, American Heart Association, and the National Medical Association -- have pushed the FDA to ban menthol for years. The agency banned all flavors in cigarettes in 2009 but did not take any action against menthol. In 2013, the groups filed a petition demanding that the FDA ban menthol, too. . The agency responded months later with a notice that it would start the process.
But it never took any action. Action on Smoking and Health and the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, later joined by the AMA and the NMA, sued in 2020 to compel the agency to do something. Now it has finally agreed to act.
The African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council welcomed the move but said the fight is not over and encouraged tobacco control activists to fight to ban menthol tobacco products at the local, state and federal level. “We know that this rule-making process could take years and we know that the tobacco industry will continue to do everything in their power to derail any attempt to remove their deadly products from the market,” Phillip Gardiner, MD, council co-chair, said in a statement.
The AMA is urging the FDA to quickly implement the ban and remove the products “without further delay,” AMA president Susan R. Bailey, MD, said in a statement.
“FDA’s long-awaited decision to take action to eliminate menthol flavoring in cigarettes and all flavors in cigars ends a decades-long deference to the tobacco industry, which has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to profit from products that result in death,” Lisa Lacasse, president of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, said in her own statement..
Lacasse said banning menthol will help eliminate health disparities. She said 86% of Black people who smoke use menthol cigarettes, compared to 46% of Hispanic people who smoke, 39% of Asian people who smoke and 29% of white people who smoke. “FDA’s actions today send a clear message that Big Tobacco’s strategy to profit off addicting Black communities will no longer be tolerated,” she said.
Not all groups are on board, however. The ACLU and several other organizations wrote to the country’s top health officials urging them to reconsider.
“Such a ban will trigger criminal penalties which will disproportionately impact people of color, as well as prioritize criminalization over public health and harm reduction,” the letter says. “A ban will also lead to unconstitutional policing and other negative interactions with local law enforcement.”
The letter calls the proposed ban “well intentioned,” but said any effort to reduce death and disease from tobacco “must avoid solutions that will create yet another reason for armed police to engage citizens on the street based on pretext or conduct that does not pose a threat to public safety.”
Instead of a ban, the organizations said, policy makers should consider increased education for adults and minors, stop-smoking programs, and increased funding for health centers in communities of color.
The Biden administration, however, pressed the point that banning menthol will bring many positives. Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock, MD said in a statement that banning menthol “will help significantly reduce youth initiation, increase the chances of smoking cessation among current smokers, and address health disparities experienced by communities of color, low-income populations, and LGBTQ+ individuals, all of whom are far more likely to use these tobacco products.”
The FDA cited data showing that in the first year or so after a ban goes into effect, an additional 923,000 smokers would quit, including 230,000 African Americans. Another study suggests that 633,000 deaths would be averted, including 237,000 Black Americans.
Woodcock added that, “Armed with strong scientific evidence, and with full support from the [Biden] administration, we believe these actions will launch us on a trajectory toward ending tobacco-related disease and death in the U.S..”
The FDA estimates that 18.6 million Americans who are current smokers use menthol cigarettes, with a disproportionately high number being Black peopleMenthol cigarette use among Black and Hispanic youth increased from 2011 to 2018, but declined for non-Hispanic White youth.
Flavored mass-produced cigars and cigarillos are disproportionately popular among youth, especially non-Hispanic Black high school students, who in 2020, reported past 30-day cigar smoking at levels twice as high as their White counterparts, said the FDA. Three-quarters of 12-to-17-year-olds report they smoke cigars because they like the flavors. In 2020, more young people tried a cigar every day than tried a cigarette, reports the agency.
“This long overdue decision will protect future generations of young people from nicotine addiction, especially Black children and communities, which have disproportionately suffered from menthol tobacco use due to targeted efforts from the tobacco industry,” said Lee Savio Beers, MD, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, in a statement.
The FDA’s announcement “is only a first step that must be followed with urgent, comprehensive action to remove these flavored products from the market," he said.